Be More Chill: YA in Theater


Musicals are my weak spot. What’s not to like? They’re narratives told in tunes that I can memorize and analyze every single time I play them on my car’s radio.

One of the first musicals I fell in love with was Be More Chill, written by Joe Tracz and Joe Iconis, which is based on the YA novel written by Ned Vizzini. I immersed myself in both versions, the two being remarkably different from each other, but wonderful in their own ways.

Both versions star Jeremy Heere, an anxious high school teenager who just wants to find an easy way to navigate the chaos that is high school. Both versions include Michael Mell, Jeremy’s best friend who loves Bob Marley and 7-11 slushies. Both versions include a grey, oblong pill containing a super computer that, when swallowed, implants in Jeremy’s brain and promises to help him gain popularity and the heart of his crush, Christine Canigula. This “chill pill”, called a squip, motivates the story in both versions.

There are a few more similarities, like Rich Goranski, Jeremy’s bully, who introduces Jeremy to the squip. However, beyond the overall plot and a few key characters, the stories begin to differ.

The novel revolves around Jeremy’s attempts at navigating high school. The squip (speaking in the voice of Keanu Reeves) instructs him to begin dating other girls in order to gain experience towards dating Christine. Vizzini took advantage of the novel’s form and describes these experiences in great detail, and they’re not all that pleasant.

This is the main difference between the musical and the book: the book is disgusting and unpleasant. In the book, there are descriptions on how mouths taste, breathing is compared to “baby horses with allergies”, and piercings get infected. Ned Vizzini describes scenes in messy, gross, awkward ways. Which is actually fitting, because the high school experience is, at some point, messy, gross, and awkward.

The musical focuses more on the squip, who, unlike the helpful Squip described in the book, is more tyrannical, intent on taking over the entire student body and eventually the world. The musical opens with the song “More Than Survive”, where Jeremy expresses his desire to “more than survive” high school.

The musical is an extremely fun listen. One of the songs, “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set A Fire)”, describes how rumors can spread in high school. The entirety of the song is assumed to take place digitally, whether through texting or through twitter posts. The characters even speak their emojis. “Let’s not let boys ever come between us ever again, m’kay? Smiley face, lipstick, kitty paw.”

The novel and the musical are two different beasts, and this all revolves around the medium they are presented in. Ned Vizzini takes advantage of the novel format with quick chapters, and first-person narration that interacts uniquely with a separate, internal dialogue. The Joe’s create songs that are fun to sing along to, each telling a story, each portraying interactions between characters in just the songs themselves.

If you haven’t yet, give Be More Chill a read! Then, you can look forward to a soundtrack to accompany it. But even if your YA preference is strictly limited to novels, it’s certainly exciting to see YA books evolve into different forms.

Author, Matty Ortega